Right to the City

Projet Montréal era an opportunity to democratize the city

Montreal can join the ranks of cities worldwide implementing participatory democratic reforms
Photo: Guilhem Vellut

Montrealers made history last November by electing the city’s first-ever female mayor, Valérie Plante. However, this wasn’t the only historically significant aspect of the election result. The new mayor’s party, Projet Montréal, also won a majority of the seats on the Montreal City Council. This marks only the second time that a grassroots, citizens’ party has gained control of City Hall. But if Montrealers want to ensure that Projet Montréal doesn’t follow the same path as the ill-fated Montreal Citizens’ Movement, we must find a way to achieve lasting reforms that transform this window of opportunity into a new democratic era for the city.

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We’ve seen it happen before: a party of outsiders and idealists rises to office on bold promises of change, only to find themselves overwhelmed by the system they vowed to transform. The party then begins to centralize power and become disconnected from their base and the population at large.

To avoid handing such a victory to cynicism, the fundamental challenge for the Plante administration is to build structures that keep the channels open between the grassroots and the corridors of power, while creating a culture shift that empowers citizens and inspires them to take an active part in building their city.

In a participatory city, all city and neighbourhood plans are co-designed from the bottom up

This challenge is one of scale, as we can easily forget that only 42 per cent of the electorate turned out to vote in the closest and most transformative election in recent history.

The rise of Projet Montréal is a vital opportunity to revive local democracy while creating a new citizen-powered politics built on the principles of participation, solidarity and inclusion.

Montreal’s engine of democratization

Fortunately, the seed of such a transformation already exists. Unique in the municipal world, the Office of Public Consultation (officially the Office de consultation publique de Montréal or OCPM) is the model of an independent, impartial, and effective arbiter of public opinion and expertise whose innovative pursuit of participatory practices is recognized around the world.

When decisions pass through the OCPM’s filter, all stakeholders, including citizens, experts, civil society organizations, and developers, are heard on an equal footing. The thorough and thoughtful recommendations that result provide the strongest assurance of a development that serves the common and long-term interests.

When the OCPM is circumvented or ignored, we get frenetic urban development in Griffintown, the razing of 1,000 trees on Île Sainte-Hélène, an ongoing housing crisis, inadequate public transit, and a city built according to the narrow views and interests of politicians and private developers.

Unfortunately, consulting the public through the OCPM isn’t required for the vast majority of projects that reshape our neighbourhoods and daily lives. Under the City Charter, consultations are only triggered by modifications to the urban master plan that are initiated by City Council, but not by the boroughs.

The roots of a participatory city are laid, but they need nurturing to grow. By pursuing bold reforms aimed at strengthening the OCPM’s mandate and expanding its role in our public life, the Plante administration could make good on its vow to deepen the culture of public consultation in Montreal, and evolve it into a culture of active participation.

Harnessing the collective intelligence

In Montreal, public consultations have historically been treated as a parallel process to our representative structures, rather than their foundation. They have too often served as an after-the-fact embellishment of well-advanced plans, when not a public relations move meant to lend a false sense of legitimacy for predetermined decisions.

This approach not only makes citizen-initiated modifications to plans more expensive, more superficial, and less likely to occur. By not beginning with the citizens, we send the message that their ideas are not welcome, thereby repelling engagement and placing citizens in an oppositional stance while depriving ourselves of the intelligence and expertise of people and organizations working at the grassroots level.

In a participatory city, all city and neighbourhood plans are co-designed from the bottom up, and the collective intelligence of communities are drawn upon both to devise new initiatives and to filter projects proposed by promoters or politicians in the interim.

If the Plante administration is committed to building such a city, they will lobby the provincial government to have these principles entrenched in the City Charter. This is the only way to guarantee that public consultations are held systematically at all stages of the urban planning process and for all major projects, both at the city level and in the boroughs.

The new democracy is in cities

While the OCPM has been hobbled by its limited budget and mandate, the experiences of other cities demonstrate what could be achieved by providing it with the tools it needs to pilot the next phase of Montreal’s democratization.

In Barcelona, the city launched an open-source deliberative platform, Decidim Barcelona, that invited citizens to co-create municipal and district action plans. The platform attracted 25,000 registered users and 10,000 proposals that helped to form the basis of an ambitious agenda.

Mexico City partnered with Change.org and social media platforms to partially crowdsource the city’s first constitution.

Seoul’s municipal government pioneered a mobile voting app that allows citizens to submit and vote on local policy proposals. At least 181 of these citizen proposals had made it into law as of September 2017.

Joining the urban avant-garde

In the OCPM, Montreal already has an institution with the legitimacy and capacity to pilot such projects, and a 15-year track record of developing new tools and processes for expanding participation.

Montreal is ready to join the rank of democratic reformers. All we’re missing is the political will.

As part of its citizen-initiated consultation on reducing Montreal’s dependence on fossil fuels, the OCPM hosted its first ever online deliberative platform, which allowed citizens to submit and vote on proposals while providing supporting arguments and references. The experiment in e-democracy attracted 5,600 participants and was wildly popular among its users, offering a hint of Montrealers’ desire for meaningful ways to impact city policy.

Montreal is ready to join the rank of democratic reformers. All we’re missing is the political will. With a massive expansion of its budget, mandate and presence, the OCPM can become the backbone of a new citizen-powered politics: their platform that’s independent from party establishments and that brings our democracy to life through daily deliberations between citizens.

Moving from consultation to collaboration

To combat cynicism and promote involvement, citizens need to know that their ideas will have a real impact. We must transition towards a truly participatory paradigm where citizen involvement is channelled upward into policy rather than resounding through a parallel echo chamber.

Beyond the mayor’s welcome promises of respecting the OCPM’s recommendations, what will her administration do to pursue a more enduring culture shift?

One option would be to propose legislative reforms to ensure that OCPM recommendations get automatically sent to council committees for analysis, with these reports leading to formal responses by the administration that are debated and voted on by City Council. This could be paired with the creation of a new bureau of the OCPM tasked with tracking progress on its recommendations, to help citizens and media hold politicians to account.

Building a participatory city

In her inauguration speech, Plante called on Montrealers to take an active role in building their city. Yet for them to do so, they need to know that it will count.

By adopting the measures outlined above, the new administration would demonstrate a genuine commitment to strengthening citizens’ power, while limiting their own power. And few things revive hope in democracy quite like a politician acting against their own interests, and in favour of yours.

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